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Yuri Felsen: Обман (Deceit)

After the Russian Revolution, a lot of Russian intellectuals fled Russia, mainly going to Berlin and Paris. There was a very active Russian intellectual life in the two cities and various small presses published their work. Some became relatively well-known – Nabokov is an obvious example. Some sadly disappeared without trace. Some of these are now coming to light as far as English-speaking readers are concerned – I have another one by a different author coming up in a few weeks – and they certainly show that Russian literature was surviving and even thriving outside the Soviet Union.

Yuri Felsen has been called the Russian Proust. I consider calling someone the something Proust (or, equally common, the something Joyce) to be lazy criticism. Just because someone dips extensively into their childhood and early life does not make them any kind of Proust just as being somewhat experimental does not make them any kind of Joyce.

Besides this novel, only one other Felsen novel was published in his lifetime (he was murdered at Auschwitz) though it seems there were lots of manuscripts that were lost). The other two novels – whose titles mean Happiness and Letters to Lermontov – have not (yet) been translated into English. However this one certainly does not seem Proustian to me. It essentially focusses on a small segment of the Russian émigré community in Paris and the distinctly messy love life of our unnamed narrator who is keeping a diary of events. There is no return to childhood, no madeleine, none of Proust’s flirtation with high society. The narrator does psychologically examine himself in some detail, though perhaps not always, in our view, accurately but psychological self-examination is hardly unique to Proust. However Felsen was friends with Proust so something may well have rubbed off.

Our narrator is not a writer but a businessman, though he is writing this diary we are reading. We are not sure what sort of businessman he is but we do know that he struggles. (Felsen himself apparently lost a large sum of money on the stock market in Paris.)

He starts off as he means to go on – miserable: Everything I have is superficial—appointments, acquaintances, time-keeping—dull and dry, and it hopelessly anaesthetises what little in me remains alive, my final frail impulses: I cannot achieve even a melancholy clarity with regard to myself, a sense of remorse, however inert, or the simple warmth of human kindness. Only more persistently than before, more shamefully, do I sense that I am the same as others, that, like everybody, I swill down idle days in trivial anguish, and that one day I must, as must everyone else, rightly disappear.

Then an old acquaintance from Berlin, Yekaterina Viktorovna N., writes to him to let him know that her niece, Lyolya Heard, was coming to Paris. Lyolya was divorced. She had been living in Belgrade, was now in Berlin and was coming to Paris. He knew of her from when he lived in Berlin as Yekaterina Viktorovna N. had mentioned her and even implied that the pair would make a fine couple .Before she arrives, before he has even met her, he has decided that she is the woman for him. Though he has a negative view of life (I am often made to feel out of sorts as a result of the fairly commonplace notion that every expectation will be frustrated, that the joy proclaimed to us will be robbed), he is very optimistic about Lyolya.

He has made a good business deal and for once has some money. He books a room for her. When she arrives she is not too keen on the room but finally accepts and the pair seem to get on well. She had had a relationship with an actor, Sergei, who is now famous in Moscow but that had ended. Or had it? The relationship between out narrator and Lyolya, at least from his perspective, does not continue well. Never have I, with any woman but for Lyolya, been able to talk without that ghastly, deprecating other voice that appears the moment I catch a woman out and, for my own sake, expose her frailty or deceit .

By today’s standards, our narrator is sexist though it may not be fair to judge a 1920s Russian exile by standards of a hundred years later. Lyolya goes back to Sergei and he is left in Paris but not alone. He knows the Wilczewskis from the past. There are three of them. The father plays a relatively minor role but little Zina (so-called though she has already been married and divorced) and her adult brother, little Bobby play a greater role. Our narrator uses Zina, partly to make the now returned Lyolya jealous.

There is also the milliner Ida Ivanovna who has her own business but needs a man in her life to do her accounts and, as she says, it is difficult for a woman to run a business without a man. He uses her as he used Zina. Zina irritates me even more than Ida Ivanovna and is artless in the extreme. When Lyolya goes off with Bobby, he is even more distressed.

What makes this book fascinating is our narrator’s psychology of his self. It is, of course, all about him. He is selfish, heartless and expects people to do what he wants and is annoyed when they don’t, though he seemingly offers little in return , except for doing Ida Ivanovna’s accounts. Sometimes he shows slight self-awareness: I find myself caught in a vicious circle of loathsome jealous thoughts, and the keener my despair, the more obsessive and importunate these petty cares become, cheapened still by the awareness of their end. More often, the others are at fault (I am the victim of some misunderstanding or injustice and I am sick of people preferring another over me,).

He seems to have a negative view of life and negative view of people and wants the world or, at least the people he knows, to behave the way he wants them to behave. Felsen digs deep into the psychological make-up of his character or, more particularly, how the narrator sees his own psychological make-up. Do we know ourselves? Almost certainly not as well as we think we do.
This is certainly an interesting and we should be grateful that we can finally read, albeit nearly a hundred years after it was first published.

It is impossible to live without deceit, however: we are made so that we shall never find our way out of this dead end, and, amid the other ever-present contradictions that seem to mock us is the need for deceit. A somewhat sad and negative conclusion.

Publishing history

First published in 1930 by Y. Povolotsky and Co
First English publication in 2022 by Prototype
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk